Android is 10 years old now, give or take. It was revealed on September 23rd, 2008, but the HTC G1 wasn’t released to the public until October 20th. Whichever date you pick, the most relevant part of that date is the year: 2008.
That’s one year after the iPhone changed smartphones forever and the same year that Apple first introduced its App Store. So it’s only natural to think about Android in the context of Google’s answer to the iPhone — and it is.
But as I wrote last year at the death of Windows Phone, that wasn’t Android’s original purpose. Android was made to fend off the possibility that Microsoft could repeat with phones what it had achieved with desktops: a virtual monopoly.
Here was Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt at the Oracle v. Google trial, responding to questions about Android’s origins:
Q. And once Android came aboard and Mr. Rubin came aboard, was there a business strategy formed about what Android would be and how it worked?
Q. Can you tell the jurors about that? What was it?
A. My recollection was that the strategy that evolved over the first year, which would be roughly 2000 and — 2006, was to build a platform — which, again, we previously discussed — that would be free and clear of some of the other licensing restrictions that were slowing down the industry, and that would, in fact, create a viable alternative to the then key players at the time. As you’ve earlier seen in the documents.
So our idea was that if we made something that was generally available, it would provide a lot of customer value; it could be a very large platform; and it would grow very quickly. All of which has, indeed, occurred.
Q: When you say open or alternative to what was out there, tell our jurors what you mean by that.
A. Well, at the time, we were quite concerned about Microsoft’s products. It’s hard to relate to that now, but at the time we were very concerned that Microsoft’s mobile strategy would be successful.
It’s also true at the time that the primary player in the industry was Nokia, who had an operating system called Symbian, which we were also concerned about.
This was before the iPhone was announced and before the whole iPhone revolution occurred.
In an effort to ensure that another company wouldn’t gain dominant control over the mobile market, Google and Android have wildly, unequivocally succeeded in doing just that.
Android has taken the place in smartphones that Windows once held with desktops: dominant market share. Worldwide, IDC pegs Android’s share at about 85 percent. We can argue about regions and whether enough of those customers are willing to spend money on apps and many other things, but that number is almost too big for nuance.
Android is the dominant computing platform on the planet. Not only has Android prevented some version of Windows from taking over mobile, but it has actually eclipsed Windows as the most popular operating system, period. Here are the latest numbers from Statcounter:
It’s easy to miss this dominance if you live in the United States. Numbers vary a little depending on which research firm you look at, but the basic story is the same: more people use Android, but Apple sells the most phones if you count by manufacturer — to the tune of somewhere between 40 and 55 percent of the American smartphone market. But because Android is fragmented among so many manufacturers (to say nothing of OS versions), Apple is the winner when it comes to hardware sales. Google’s Pixel is a blip compared to Samsung. But step back, and even the US market is essentially 50 percent iOS, 50 percent Android.
My point is that I don’t think enough people have fully contended with how powerful and important Android has become. Mobile phones are the primary computing platform for a huge swath of humanity, and the vast majority of them are using Android.
I also don’t think people have really done a great job contending with the parallels between Android today and Windows in the late ‘90s. No comparison is perfect, and I will gladly admit that the situation is vastly different now, in large part because Android is an open-source project that can’t be fairly compared to what Microsoft was doing back then.
Still, there are parallels, and they’re beginning to give policymakers cause for concern. Android’s worldwide dominance has led it into hot water with the European Union, and that fight is still ongoing.
I think that fair-minded people can find merit in the EU’s contention that Google is abusing its market dominance to buttress Chrome and the Play Store. I can also see that it doesn’t make sense to impose a system where Google can’t exert some quality and security standards on the massive platform it has created. Given the way Android updates have played out over the last decade, Chrome and the Play Store might be the company’s only real hope for holding back the flood of fragmentation and malware that would otherwise threaten the entire ecosystem.
If I’m being honest, I don’t really know which side of that debate I land on yet because fully comprehending just how dominant Android is and how integral it might be to the future of the web and computing is damnably hard.
I believe that the changes that Google is making to how its own search product works on mobile are a big deal, one that is easy to miss since those changes can seem so snoozy. But consider this: Google is putting a news feed on the default homepage of many Android phones, which is now bigger than Windows (with the caveat that many OEMs choose their own default homepage). For all the well-justified concerns about Facebook’s algorithms, there’s been precious little talk about Google’s responsibilities for presenting news at that scale.
I can’t get to the bottom of any of these issues in this small space. What I can do is try to remind you of Android’s dominance and remind you that it was not a fluke. Android’s inception was almost geopolitical in nature. Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin saw that there was a real risk to Google if Microsoft found a way to make Windows Mobile work. So years before Apple released the iPhone, Google decided to buy Android, put real resources behind it, and gave the thing away for free. And after the iPhone came out, Andy Rubin and Google quickly pivoted the entire thing to become a real competitor to Apple’s platform.
It’s easy to laugh now at the idea that Windows Mobile had a shot at winning the smartphone battle. But the particulars of how that mobile OS worked weren’t the issue; it was the business model. We were always going to have a lot of companies jumping into the smartphone game, and they were always going to need a software platform. The winning platform was Android because Google was competent where Microsoft (and Palm and Symbian and BlackBerry) were not. It could have gone another way.
I get it: horse races and boxing matches are fun. It’s easy to see the world through the lens of “Mac vs. PC” and “Android vs. iPhone.” Those are useful lenses to compare products and make purchase decisions, and I won’t apologize for using them myself. But when it comes to Android, we shouldn’t forget how its history informs its present. It started as a hedge against Microsoft, and that strategy led it to become used by more people than Windows.
But no one interested in technology should forget that more people experience computers and the internet via Android than anything else. That’s not just a huge accomplishment after 10 years; it’s also a huge change in how we should be thinking about computing and the internet. A decade later, and we still seem to keep forgetting about that.